The thunderous percussion of barrel drums and the rhythmic ‘tink’, ‘tink’, ‘tink’ of cowbells reverberate through an otherwise silent Sunday afternoon in Salt Lake City.
If you’ve lived in or visited Salt Lake for any amount of time, you probably know about the drum circle at Liberty Park on Sunday afternoons. It’s been consistent for decades; some old-timers guess it’s been going since the 60s. While it’s gone through natural cycles of growth and contraction, today, the drum circle is more vibrant than ever.
If you drop in to the drum circle on a random Sunday this summer, it’s likely you’ll see hundreds of people gathered for the sound of the drums along with a whole lot of other free expression. You’ll see people practicing flow arts like fire spinning, dancing, live painting, and even live tattooing. Someone recently brought their sewing machine. Beyond the core drummers and dancers, dozens more relax on blankets, toss balls, and enjoy themselves.
For one of the lead drummers, Carlos Bible, the growing drum circle community is more than a hobby. “I care more about the drums than my career at this point. I’ve been a cameraman and director for many years. But now I’m more about creating experiences for people to connect in person and in the moment, rather than shooting images that people watch at home alone. This is so much more fulfilling.”
He began showing up to the drum circle several years ago with just a cowbell, which he’d play to help the novice drummers hold the tempo, drawing on his years as a percussionist when he was younger. He continued participating weekly, usually drumming all day. During the pandemic, he built giant drums out of two 55-gallon oil barrels. Because of their size, their sound carries further and draws in a larger crowd. That was a turning point for the growth of the circle. “There are hundreds of people gathering now. We’ve become like the house band of a free event that Salt Lake CIty is so gracious to let us do.”
For some, the drum circle has a rough reputation. The park has its fair share of homeless campers loitering, many of them with addictions. There have been shootings and stabbings at the park. Sometimes the scene is not very pretty, and that keeps people away. But for Carlos, showing up to drum is his way of beautifying the park and making it a place for children and families. “A kid can’t be within a hundred yards of the drum and not pull their parents towards us.”
He shared about the positive feedback loop they create, “As we drum, we see it have a positive effect on people. Drumming is something I feel good about and give away freely. When I see one person enjoying it, I keep going. That’s some of the highest currency on the planet.”
An average of 12-15 core drummers hold the beat, and more than 50 people show up with instruments of all kinds. One drum leader, Dan Nelson, brings other percussive instruments like shakers, tambourines, bells, cymbals, and whistles, to help the group keep a cohesive groove. And he introduces various rhythmic styles from around the world. To get the group going, he leads through a tempo like the samba, for example, and invites the other drummers to follow. And then it takes off, sometimes for 25 minutes.
Dan shared, “We want people to know that the community is really loving. Come experience that love and share in the commonality of the drum. We want you to have a wonderful experience. You can bring your family, or a date, or just come meet new friends.”
People start drumming around 11am-12pm most Sundays. But the drumming really takes off around 3-5pm, and many people stay until after dark. It’s a free event with no real leadership or organizational structure. If you want to get involved, just show up. There are also Facebook groups for staying in touch outside the events. And for anyone interested in learning to drum, besides just coming to the drum circle, Carlos recommends the book Drumming at the Edge of Magic by Jay Stevens and Mickey Hart.
Carlos praised the current state of the drum circle, “What we have is so good. I’ve lived long enough to recognize how special this is. Let’s keep feeding it so we can pass it on to whoever is coming next. Because someone did that for us.”